Mad About Science: Muscles

By Brenden Bobby
Reader Columnist

This article is meant to do one thing, ja. Pump… You up!

Muscles come in a huge variety of forms and have an amazing amount of intricacy and complexity attached to each and every one of them, so we’re going to use our masseter muscles to bite off just a little bit of info today. If you’re curious about how muscles work, or want to go from being a puny, flabby baby to a big ripped muscle man, ja, check out the health section your local library, or ask a librarian. They’ll get you on the road to bodybuilding competitions faster than you can say: ”levator labii superioris alaeque nasi muscle.”

Our muscles come in three forms: cardiac, smooth and skeletal. We have direct control over our skeletal, sometimes called striated muscles, which are muscles that anchor to bone and contract to generate movement. Think about your biceps: When you bend your arm to do something like read a library book or shovel pure protein into your mouth, your bicep brachii muscle is contracting and pulling the rest of your arm into that position. As you relax, your arm can fall back into its natural position. These actions occur all over our body with such regularity that we don’t even think about how intricate all of these connections are. In fact, the only time we ever notice the effort we’re putting into simply moving is when we have to do something more, like exercise, which we will cover later.

Smooth muscles are muscles that are generally not consciously controlled. Think about the muscles in your stomach that push waste through your intestines. Smooth muscles are also responsible for helping push blood through small blood vessels. These actions are controlled relatively autonomously through chemical reactions triggered by the most primal part of our brain, the brainstem. We don’t think about, nor can we control these muscle movements on our own, which is great when you forget more things than you remember in a day, like I do.

Cardiac muscles are a given — they’re what make up the walls of your heart and ensure blood keeps pumping through your body. Did you know that a healthy heart, on average, beats 42 million times per year? That means that the oldest living person in the world, Kane Tanaka, has had her heart beat over 4.8 billion times. I’m somewhere around 1.2 billion.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve wondered why your muscles hurt so badly after an intense exercise or a day on a tough job. The thing about muscles is, they need to be damaged in order to get stronger. Before you pick up the cleaver on your quest to become the next Jason Momoa, you should know they need to be damaged in a specific way: through use. 

Using our muscles for large and repetitive tasks causes wear and tear, from muscle fibers tearing to cells naturally dying. The repair and growth happens when your body uses stem cells to repair the damage and make more muscle cells in anticipation of more strenuous activity. Very little pain comes from direct tissue damage. Swelling causes considerably more pain in the 48 hours following a workout. Edema, often referred to as swelling, happens when your blood vessels start leaking into a damaged area inside your body to repair damage and stop any more from occurring.

This recovery period is the crux of a multi-billion dollar supplement business. The complexity of our bodies means that most people — plenty of doctors included — don’t know the full extent of why our bodies do certain things. Companies jump on uncertainty and unproven theories and swindle us on expensive supplements our bodies end up urinating out anyway. Remember the antioxidant craze? There was a theory floated around 2016 that excessive oxidants in our blood caused excess swelling and slower repair times, so something that reduced the presence of those oxidants (hence, the suffix “anti”-oxidant) could provide increased durability and repair times for our muscles. Systematic studies since have found no evidence to support this claim.

Now I’m not saying pour out all of your Gatorade; there are good things in most sports drinks. The sugar in sports drinks is the key component: it tastes good and it gives your body a spike of energy in clutch time. However, like all things we put into our bodies, it should be taken in moderation and supplemented with plenty of water.

The 48 hours following a hard workout or a rough day of physical labor are key to repairing your muscles. It all starts with what you put into your body. Eating lots of sugar may make you feel good right away, but your body is going to reconstruct those molecules into fat and keep you aching for longer. Eating protein will help your body with rebuilding your muscle, and the various minerals in vegetables have been shown to also help the body recover. Keeping those aching muscles active through things like massage and stretching will also help your body recover. If you can afford it, cryotherapy and ice baths have been shown to help as well — though just give the weather two months and you can opt in for a little North Idaho cryotherapy. Snow, baby!

There is an immense amount of misinformation out there about our bodies and how to improve them. Before you drop a stack on the next fad diet or miracle supplement, go chat with a librarian and make sure there’s some evidence to support eating a cotton ball to lose weight. Spoiler alert: There is absolutely none, and you should never eat a freaking cotton ball.

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